Bayou Maharajah, a documentary exploring the musical legacy of James Booker, will have its Savannah premiere at 6 pm on Thursday, Dec. 19 at Telfair Museums’ Jepson Center for the Arts. Since its world premiere at SXSW Film Festival, the documentary was screened at the Film Society at Lincoln Center, The Barbican Centre in London, and won The Oxford American’s prize for Best Southern Film.
The film marks the first ever in-depth project focusing on James Booker, arguably one of the nation’s greatest jazz pianists. Bayou Maharajah uses interviews with Booker’s collaborators, friends, and contemporaries to explore the life and the career of a man whose prodigious talent would earn him the moniker, the “Piano Prince of New Orleans.” His influence is captured through interviews with some of today’s leading artists, including Hugh Laurie, Harry Connick Jr., (who, along with Dr. John, was his student), Allen Toussaint, Irma Thomas, and Charles Neville.
A classically-trained child prodigy, Booker began his career in earnest while still a youth at the encouragement of a supportive family. By his teen years, his assured, rapid fire playing technique would secure him employment as a studio musician for Fats Domino, Aretha Franklin, Ringo Starr, Ray Charles, and other well-known musicians of the era. Most attention, however, is given to the 1970s, when Booker achieved his full musical promise as a solo artist before adoring European audiences.
Contemporaries recall a flamboyant performer who captivated audiences with his showmanship. Ultimately, his addictions – alcohol, heroin, and cocaine, among others – would undo the man. Although Booker released his own single, “Doin’ the Hambone,” at the tender age of 14 and had the chart-topping single “Gonzo” at 20, he would only record a handful of independent albums before an untimely death at 43 years of age.
Filmmaker Lily Keber, who graduated from Savannah Arts Academy in 2000, discovered Booker when she moved to New Orleans in 2006.
“Booker is a near mythic figure in New Orleans precisely because so much of his life is shrouded in mystery,” says Keber. “Here’s this artist who produces these lush, complex, and delicate recordings that demonstrate a love of music, who courted fame but who wouldn’t show up for his own performances. I tried to show how Booker is a study in contrasts, like the city of his birth.”
In Keber’s work, rare archival footage, historic images, and interviews reveal who Booker and New Orleans are, and how they could not exist without one another.
Admission is $10 per person, $5 for students, cash only.